What's wrong with sounding gay?

STEPHANIE BUCK
Last updated 14:30 14/05/2014

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You wouldn't know David Thorpe was gay. Depending on your perspective, you might guess metrosexual. He wears trendy jeans and a looped scarf; he keeps his beard tidy. On the New York City subway, he looks like any other typical 45-year-old man.

Until he opens his mouth.

Thorpe has a gay-sounding voice. In his case, that means a relatively high vocal register for a man and a hint of a gravelly creak you might expect from a Kardashian. He draws out some vowels with a melodic swing.

But it's only in the past three years, while working on his documentary Do I Sound Gay?, that he's fully embraced his "gay voice." The goal of the film is to de-stigmatise the term, and eliminate the stereotypes and homophobia surrounding the distinct vocal style.

"There's nothing wrong with being gay, so there's nothing wrong with sounding gay," reasons Thorpe.

Thorpe and his team are looking for a final round of funding for their project, via Kickstarter. They hope to raise $NZ133,000 total by the end of May.

At the time of writing, the documentary has reached $37,651 (USD). Thorpe has logged 165 interviews in four countries, targeting speech therapists, linguistics professors, gay men, straight men and celebrities such as Tim Gunn, David Sedaris and George Takei, who discuss anxieties with their own gay voices.

When asked how he convinced so many prominent celebs to participate, he laughed, "I had a really elaborate strategy: I asked."

Beyond civil rights for the LGBT community, the general public is growing more comfortable than ever with gay and lesbian people, 81 percent of young people (18-24 years) support marriage equality

With big-picture policy under debate, Thorpe says, we're free to also talk about many other aspects of homophobia that weren't possible before.

"Your anxiety about your voice can be the last vestige of internalised homophobia," he says. "As you come out, you have to shed your own prejudices that society teaches you: that gay is bad. Your voice is so much the essence of who you are, an expression of your soul, that it can be one of the harder things to let go of. Every time you speak, potentially you're saying, 'I'm gay.'"

But what is a "gay voice?"

Ron Smyth, a semi-retired associate linguistics professor at University of Toronto Scarborough, has been studying gay and lesbian speech patterns since the late '90s. Early on, he and his colleagues ruled out the possibility that gay voice is a dialect - in other words, the similar speech of a cohesive group of people who live in the same region, which evolves over time. That's not a good explanation for why some people sound gay, while others don't.

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Smyth says a man's gay voice can most reliably be traced back to one of two origins. First, men with gay-sounding voices were more likely to have participated in female-oriented behaviours, or to relate with female role models as they grew up, sometimes developing more feminine mannerisms simultaneously. "Whatever the cultural norms are for women in any language in the world or any dialect, there's going to be a gay-sounding voice that goes with it," he says. 

Still, correlations between these behaviours and sounding gay were much stronger correlations between sounding gay and being gay, which explains why many straight men 'sound gay'.

Second, affiliation with other gay men (Smyth calls it "community of practice") may contribute to developing a gay voice, typically later in life.

Over the years, with four separate studies that included both gay and straight participants, Smyth found very few reliable patterns in voice that correlate to being gay or straight. For example, there's no way to reliably predict who speaks deeply and who speaks with a hissy "S" sound most commonly associated with gay voice. Even among gay men only, there's little overlap.

"If you average all the butch guys and fem guys, it's all in the mess in the middle," Smyth explains. "When we look at the correlation between sounding gay and being gay, it's always very low significance or none at all," (around +0.05 correlation).

The wild card: what third-party participants perceived as gay voice versus straight voice. Smyth asked people to rate 25 recorded voices on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the "most gay-sounding." He found they were wrong much of the time. People labelled men gay who sexually identified as straight, and vice versa.

However, the perception results were nearly identical: they agreed on who sounded gay or straight. And the ones who sounded gay (even if they weren't) did tend to have those gay-voice features, such as the hissy "S."

Bottom line: people agree on what sounds gay. People agree on what sounds straight. But there's little accuracy in determining who actually is gay.

Straight men experience similar anxieties as actual gay men about their gay-sounding voices. "'I hate my voice. I sound so gay, and there's nothing I can do about it,' and 'I wish I could sound straighter, but I can't,'" Smyth remembers many participants revealing.

It's a topic Thorpe addresses in his documentary: Men's fear - no matter their sexuality - that their voices betray aspects of themselves that society deems shameful.

But how did these stereotypes become so ingrained in society in the first place? To start, Thorpe points to the "dandy," a fey, fashionable pop-culture icon of the early 20th century, with a voice often portrayed as aristocratic and snobbish.

Later, public figures such as Liberace, Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Riley charged 1970s and 1980s Hollywood with new perceptions of homosexuality, despite being questioned about their own sexual orientations, mostly due to their voices and mannerisms. 

In the past five to 10 years, reality TV has served as a remarkable service for gay voice, Thorpe says. Men such as Carson Kressley of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Tim Gunn of Project Runway have used their gay voices openly, making them relatable to mass audiences.

"There's something very celebratory and compelling about [men who sound gay]," he says. "We're getting back into another golden era of sounding gay."

However, other representations in Hollywood make Thorpe cringe. Immediately, he cites Disney. Remember the villains Jafar from Aladdin and Scar from The Lion King? They're textbook definitions of "aristocratic, fey pansies," Thorpe says, referring to the way Scar (voiced by actor Jeremy Irons) draws out the vowels in the word "awful."

"This gay manner and way of speaking isn't lost on gay men in the audience," Thorpe says.

Disney coupled the characters' voices with coy references to homosexuality in the script itself:

Scar: As far as brute strength is concerned, I'm in the shallow end of the gene pool.
Zazu [aside, to Mufasa]: There's one in every family, sire. Two in my family, actually.

"It's so obviously coded as gay," he adds.

Regardless of some calculated Hollywood representations, Thorpe still wants people to talk about, and debate, gay voice. Even straight people. When asked whether it's acceptable for straight people to use the term "gay voice" at all, he replied with an emphatic "Yes!"

"I think it is absolutely okay to say, 'My friend Bob sounds gay,' even if Bob isn't gay, because there's nothing wrong with being gay, so to say someone sounds gay is perfectly cool, too," he says, as long as it's not meant offensively. "What we want to change is the idea that saying something 'sounds gay' is an insult."

In the end, anxiety around gay voice reflects the pressure everyone feels trying to conform to an ideal, he says. 

"It's a symbol of the strength it takes to be yourself every day in society." 

When asked whether he's self-conscious about his voice while talking during the interview, Thorpe responds, "I'm not. After three years of confronting my demons and talking to people about sounding gay, I'm so proud to be talking to you, and feel free about my voice."

- This article originally appeared on Mashable

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